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Tour guide versus mobile app

by • 25 Oct, 2010 • People, TechnologyComments (10)5219

Charming tour guide versus mobile 3D AR app

Boris Micka advocates the use of technology to make it feel as if it were human. His most innovative tech projects cannot beat the experience of Russian babushkas who know everything about a museum. So what happens when ceteris paribus a charming tour guide and one of the coolest museum apps in the world compete?

The Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam

The playground for this epic museum battle is Rotterdam. This harbour town hosts so much great architecture and stories about it, past, present and future, that it really helps if someone or something tells you where to look. Last week I went on a tour through the city called Metropolder organised by the Netherlands Architecture Institute, NAi. The exact same tour is available in NAi’s UAR app, which uses (3D) augmented reality and Layar technology to tell stories about the buildings in the city.

UAR lets you experience the history and future of architecture with photos, audio and additional information. It also contains 3D models of some future buildings, so you can get an amazing feel of what the city will look like in the future. Sometimes with dramatic consequences, but I’ll get back to that later.

The tour I did was hosted by two guides and had some 10 participants. It focused on Rotterdam’s relation with water. Polders, harbours and dikes played a central role in most of the stories. The day was cold and a bit rainy. During the tour I tried to use UAR to find additional information to the stories told by its competitor: the real-life tour guide.

Tour guide versus mobile app

Most of the differences between a tour guide and a mobile app are obvious. Let’s call the tour guide Karla (not her real name) and the app UAR (real name) and compare them.

  1. UAR knows way more than tour guide Karla.
    The vast amount of information in the app really adds an extra layer to the tour. The only thing UAR misses is a link to the Internet to find out even more about building (e.g. using the Wikipedia API), but with all the information at hand this is hardly a problem.
  2. Tour guide Karla knows better what you’d like to know.
    With all the information in UAR, you might feel rather overwhelmed. Personally I prefer anecdotes to plain information. UAR can’t make this distinction, whereas Karla can. A good tour guide can personalise a tour way better than I’ve seen any mobile app do so far.
  3. Tour guide Karla knows exactly where you are and where to look.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m always lost when I try to use Layar technology. Apart from global direction and distance, it doesn’t tell much about where to look. Karla can tell way better where certain details are and can point you there.
  4. UAR makes it easier to imagine past and future.
    No matter how vivid the stories of a tour guide about how a building used to look, or will look in the future, they can never beat the photography and 3D models in UAR. The direct relation between present, past and future is a great experience and makes UAR very valuable.
  5. Tour guide Karla makes a tour a social event.
    No matter how you look at it, experiences on a mobile phone are mostly solitary experiences. A good tour is not. It connects people with each other and encourages conversation between strangers. Although UAR makes it tempting to share a phone and experience past and future together, it cannot beat the real-life tour guide.
  6. UAR is more flexible than Karla.
    The reason I usually don’t take tours is that I have to adjust my speed and interests to other people. Usually other people don’t like the same stuff as I do. UAR allows you to discover the city in your own tours, or certain tours at your own speed. It doesn’t hurry you along or keep you waiting.
  7. UAR is more dramatic, but doesn’t offer the comfort Karla does.
    I promised to come back to the dramatic impact UAR can have. My sister lives in Rotterdam, 18 floors up with a view on the river. It’s beautiful! However, between her apartment and the river a new building is planned. Of course you can imagine the dramatic result for her view of this development, but with UAR it becomes terribly clear (see photo below). No way imagination can beat that! For UAR, however, that’s also a given fact. Okay, your amazing view will be lost, deal with it. A tour guide might respond to your desperation.

UAR van het NAi met zicht op een nieuwe torenflat aan de Maas

View on the Maas after a new building will be completed. Disastrous!

The verdict: is a charming tour guide better than a mobile app?

NAi’s UAR is an amazing app. Definitely one of the best museum apps I’ve used, especially because of its 3D models in combination with AR and a vast amount of architectural information. Its predefined tours are also a great plus, as they give guidance in the myriad of data. I’m happy they’ll be rolling the app out in more cities in the Netherlands.

Of course the app can be improved. I don’t think it’s meant to replace traditional tour guides, but there’s some things the app might learn from charming guides such as Karla:

  • Using the same 3D AR technology the app might point to specific points of interest, using big arrows that point at the exact detail.
  • Personalisation of the information you receive (“I’d like to hear anecdotes”, “I only care about this type of building”) and in-tour adjustment of these setting (“tell me more about…”) can make the app more interesting to a larger audience.
  • Encouragement to engage in social interaction in the app could make the experience more intense and more social (“the shop owner has a wonderful story about the building, ask him…”)

The other way around a tour guide might learn from the mobile app. For instance to bring historical photography and future impressions of some of the buildings in the tour. I’ve seen this happen and if it does, the sharing of photos (like the sharing of smartphones) add to the social interaction between participants.

Personally, of course I like the mobile app and UAR especially. But I also enjoy the social event a good tour guided by a charming tour guide can be. In NAi’s tour the combination of a tour guide and the UAR mobile app combined the best of both worlds. So, unfortunately, I cannot say who won this epic museum battle. But then that’s a typical thing for epen.

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  • is this not the same dilemma museums face in balancing the virtual experience of an object with providing a ‘seeing the real thing’ experience of an object – which one is better depends on what the audience want at the time, what technology they have and the value (subjective) of the object and story

  • Hi Caroline, I’m tempted to say you’re right this is the same dilemma with objects. However, that might be simplifying the issue a bit too much. Not all tech vs people comparisons will have the same outcome and for objects – who knows? – the balance might be different. I’ll have to think about that!

  • Corina M. Paraschiv

    i say have both. it’d be so cool to have an augmented reality guided tour with a real guide. She speaks, tells you where to point your (possibly rented) device.. and voila! Best of both worlds! Why pick :p

  • Corina M. Paraschiv

    PS just one little issue : i LOVE the idea of the shop keeper telling you a story but how do you guarentee he’ll stay around forever… and what if he’s closed or sick on one day or on vacation? Or the shop closed altogether and something else lives there? I thinkl maintaince is definitely a huge challenge.

    BTW you know what this makes me think of, this app? It makes me think of those books with images that have transparent pages on top of the paper pages, when we were kids — does anyone remember? You could have like ancient Greece overlapping kind of thing….with like the ruins vs how it used to look…

  • Hi Corina!

    Best of both worlds is kind of what NAi offered in their tour: both a tour guide and the mobile app, with support of a guide. I think we might see a trend coming where this will happen more often. If you have both, use both.

    On the shop keeper: he or she might also get bored after having told the story 100 times:-) Still, there’s a lot of opportunity in apps to stimulate social interaction, something often overlooked in the current generation. Mobile phones need a Wii revolution: make them (more) social!

  • Corina MP

    true — kind of like Meetup — it’s a website, and people go on it from their own homes — but it ends up bringing people together face-to-face, right? I Love that concept!

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  • If you’re into Dutch (as in: can understand it), this is a video of a 4-minute presentation I gave based on this blogpost at the Kom Je Ook? conference in Amsterdam: http://vimeo.com/18209876

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